According to the kind of people who compile surveys, it costs around £218,000 to raise a child — and that’s before you even think about taking them on holiday. Of course, kids don’t strictly speaking need holidays (although I appreciate everyone needs a break from CBeebies once in a while), but the old adage that travel broadens the mind is true. I’m a staunch believer the more experiences you can cram into your kids’ lives in their formative years, the more open-minded they’re likely to turn out (note: I have no actual evidence of this yet — ask me in 2020).
Assuming the theory is sound, you’re faced with a conundrum: how do you combine ‘family travel’ with ‘budget travel’, without it becoming ‘hellishly unpleasant travel’?
Before you have kids, you can nip away for a weekend on a whim and still keep it thrifty, taking advantage of last-minute discounts, flying to off-season destinations via not-quite-the-nearest airports, confident you won’t cross the Baggage Allowance Bankruptcy Threshold. And once you arrive, all you really need by way of entertainment is a decent book, somewhere to sprawl by a pool and a town to wander around. Remember those days?
Me neither. From the moment your squawking firstborn flails into your life, those cheap, cheerful getaways become a distant memory — just like weekend lie-ins and tidy living rooms. Going away with your kids is both a military operation and a smash and grab on the bank account. The little joy-bundles need transporting, feeding and entertaining — often all at once — and the costs sure add up. Just consider it fertility tax.
Although I’d hesitate to say ‘budget family travel’ is easy to achieve, there are a few cunning ways of shaving a few quid off here and there. First of all, whenever possible, have a child under two. After this age, almost every airline decides kids should have a seat and pay full adult fare. Up till then, it’s usually either £20 each way (with no frills such as EasyJet, Ryanair) or 10% of the usual price (with scheduled airlines like BA and Virgin). If you have an under-two but can’t face the prospect of them sitting/climbing/sleeping on you for the whole flight, give BA a ring: they’ll often give you a cheaper phone-only child fare that lets you put your tray table down.
Trains are more generous. On Eurostar, under-fours travel free, as long as they don’t take up a seat and, in the UK, all rail companies let under-fives use trains for nothing — with no restrictions (it’s half-price for five-15-year-olds). A word about staying close to home ‘to save money’: this is to be undertaken with caution. You may save on travel costs, but UK hotels and restaurants are at least as pricy as their continental counterparts, so in the end you may find you could have spent a week on a Greek island and still have change for an ouzo.
When you choose to travel has an enormous impact on costs. It’s astonishing how few people plan their trips in the off- or shoulder-seasons, when the weather’s still good but prices have taken a nosedive, and there are no crowds to fight through. Under-fives aren’t confined to school term time and travelling just a one-day shift out of high season can make a huge difference, especially for those long-haul, tropical destinations. The Maldives, Caribbean and Southeast Asia can be up to 50% cheaper between May and August (avoiding peak hurricane season), and Morocco in October can be lovely.
Of course, you only have that kind of date-flexibility if your kids are pre-schoolers or you’ve decided to homeschool them. As a parent, you quickly learn the entire travel industry and national educational infrastructure are in cahoots. You’ve stumbled into the School Holiday Trap, where hotels are suddenly twice the price, and those £30 flights you see advertised everywhere have miraculously inflated to the cost of a new plasma screen. Your last, best hope for economical travel is planning ahead — most hotels and airlines will publish their early-bird summer rates around January, so as soon as the Christmas tree’s down, go online. Book early enough and you find that BA can trump EasyJet.
Hotel-wise, look for half-board rates, rooms with kitchenettes or full self-catering facilities, and check out the restaurants nearby — they’ll almost always be cheaper than the hotel’s own. Look for hotels that offer free childcare or kids’ activities that’ll leave you time to relax, and check whether cots or extra beds can be added to your room for free.
Don’t splurge on entertainment — visiting theme parks can be like trudging around leaking fivers for six hours. Sometimes the most memorable ‘family time’ activities really are free if you’re creative: bring a kite, go beach-combing and make a collage, keep a holiday diary, set a treasure hunt…
I’ve learned the hard way that the ‘big excursions’ can be underwhelming wallet-drainers. We stayed in a budget beach hotel in Portugal last summer, and, smug with my saving, I decided to treat us all to a dolphin-spotting powerboat ride (‘Sightings 90% guaranteed!’). After three minutes, the kids were seasick. After five, they were asleep. My wife and I hung on while the waves jerked the boat, gazing in vain at the dolphin-free ocean.
Next time, we’ll stick to sandcastle competitions. Having said that, afterwards I did enjoy telling the children about how Flipper and his friends back-flipped over the boat while they dozed. Maybe it was worth the money after all…
Published in the Spring 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)